SALT LAKE CITY-- Sometimes after a big win, U.S. women's hockey coach Ben Smith will say something to his team about the games remaining. Sometimes he will just put them through a practice more grueling than usual.
Either way, the message is the same: Rivalry or not, it's too early to start thinking about Canada.
"He doesn't ever let you relish a win," captain Cammi Granato said as the favored Americans prepared for their opening game against Germany. "He'd be right back on top of us to keep grinding, not be complacent. It wouldn't surprise me to be skating after a big win."
The eight-team Olympic tournament belies the fact that there are only two real women's hockey powers, the United States and Canada. Finland and Russia could put up a good fight for the bronze medal, but no one is expected to threaten the North Americans for gold and silver.
Canada has won every world championship ever played; in each one, it has beaten the Americans. The United States beat the Canadians in their only other meaningful matchup, winning the gold medal at Nagano in 1998.
But since the 2001 worlds, the U.S. team has beaten Canada eight consecutive times - winning north and south of the border and even at the E Center, where most of the Olympic tournament will be played. Against everyone else, the Americans were a similarly dominant 23-0.
"It was obviously a confidence booster, but we're not overconfident," forward Karyn Bye said, noting that three of the games against Canada were decided by one goal. "If we are able to meet them in the gold medal game, that would be great. But we're not thinking about it.
"I think our rivalry with Canada has always been intense. But this is a whole new ballgame."
The Olympics' preliminary round consists of a round-robin within each of two groups. The United States plays Germany on Tuesday, followed by China and Finland; Canada starts Monday against Kazakstan and then plays Sweden and Russia.
At a news conference on Saturday, before a single game had been played in the tournament, Smith and his players were asked more about a potential gold medal matchup with Canada than anything else. he coach did his best to divert the attention back to the game against Germany.
"There's no shoo-ins here," said Smith, who's from Gloucester, Mass., reminding everyone that the New England Patriots had just won the Super Bowl as 14-point underdogs to the St. Louis Rams.
With a couple of shocking early losses, the Americans and Canadians could meet at the start of the medal round on Feb. 17. More likely, though, they wouldn't meet until the gold medal game on Feb. 21.
That leaves a lot of preliminaries on the undercard.
"We really can't think about that yet," Granato said, trying to put off the umpteenth question about the finals. "Everybody's asking us about the gold medal game and we haven't played our preliminary round."
Smith said he doesn't rely on any motivational tricks to keep his team in one-game-at-a-time mode. But his players said that sometimes he will run them extra hard in practice to ward off complacency.
"These players are pretty focused, pretty driven. They wouldn't be here if they weren't," he said. "But we have to have checks every once in a while. We're going to make sure we don't get caught up in the buzz. That's discussed daily."
And, even if this doesn't turn out to be a coming out party for women's hockey in Sweden, China or Kazakstan, Smith knows the day isn't too far off when the North American dominance is diminished.
"We all know there's great hockey in other countries," he said, pointing to the men's game. "It's just a question of time and a question of numbers."
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